Lincoln MKZ hybrid — Could be the smartest entry lux buy today

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The hybrid luxury cars now on the market generally offer the power of a big V-6 or a V-8 engine, but at only a modest savings in gas consumption while commanding a premium price. Payback time is forever, if ever.

Additionally it is seldom can you find a luxury sedan with great fuel economy without compromising performance, and at an attractive price. This makes the 2011 entry-level luxury Lincoln MKZ a very unusual sedan — a vehicle that literally stands alone in its uniqueness.

The MKZ hybrid is invisible — undetectable from its V-6 gas engine sibling — but with significantly improved gas mileage measured at 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway and with the same luxury features as the standard model. And here’s the good part — Ford Motor Company has not raised the price over the V-6 model. Both the Hybrid and the gas engine Lincolns carry a base price of $35,180 including destination charge. And that makes savings immediate; no waiting; nada.

It’s an incredible deal when you consider that most hybrids, luxury or mass market carry those heavy premium prices, some nearing five figures. And as gas prices rise, don’t expect to catch a break.

The only compromise with the MKZ hybrid is a slight fall off in performance, but the hybrid with a combined 191 horsepower and a 0-to-60 rating of around 8.5 seconds feels confident in handling the demands of all types of driving from passing to merging.

The big difference other than performance (the V-6 has been measured at 7.2 seconds 0-to-60) is gas mileage. The hybrid is EPA-tested with a combined city/highway rating of 39 mpg and the V-6 is rated at 18/27 with a combined 21 mpg. After pushing the MKZ for a couple of weeks with an absolute lead foot our combined mileage suffered a mere 1.2 miles per gallon – we ended averaging 37.8 mpg.

Realize that the 18 miles per gallon difference between the hybrid and the V6 would amount to an expense of $2,000 a year at $3 per gallon if you drove 12,000 miles annually. That’s a true savings of $2,000 since the purchase price of the two similarly equipped vehicles is identical. And today as gasoline prices escalate the real savings is even greater

The only direct competition to the Lincoln currently is the Lexus HS 250h. The Lincoln is less expensive, has better performance, a quieter cabin and gets on average about six more miles to the gallon.

Seems like a no-brainer. After driving the MKZ we would have no problem choosing the hybrid over the V-6 version and certainly over the Lexus. And the MKZ, with a nice selection of luxury appointments, excellent fit and finish, a stylish exterior, passenger compartment solitude, and very adequate room for four passengers, would be on our short list of mid-sized entry luxury sedans hybrid or not.

When you shell out that 35 grand you will get the Lincoln pizzazz, which in addition to the large waterfall grille, things like Bridge of Weir leather-trimmed seating from Scotland are included as well as quality-looking real wood trim, heated and ventilated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and a nine-speaker stereo with six-disc CD changer and satellite radio.

Motivation for the MKZ comes from a 2.5-liter gas engine making 156 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque along with an electric motor that pushes horsepower to 191. Power is sent to the front wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission.

The drivetrain is largely invisible, doing its job much like a standard stepped gear transmission. And in fact, Lincoln has added a “kick down” feature so that when you slam the accelerator to pass a slow-moving vehicle the transmission feels like it is shifting to a lower gear for greater acceleration.

Our only complaint, minor, indeed, is with the brakes, which at times felt touchy, yanking us to a stop when we meant to slow rather than come to complete rest. But if the MKZ is the only car you drive, you will soon learn the subtleties of braking.

All the driving aids you could possibly desire to show your ability to coax great fuel economy from the hybrid drivetrain are available on the MKZ dash. But the instrument cluster is customizable so that if you just want the usual facts such as speed, rpm and how much gas is left in the tank, that’s what you’ll get.

The most unique feature is Lincoln’s virtual plant that grows as a reward for light-footed driving. The plant, displayed to the right of the speedometer, can sprout up to five flowers, each one progressively harder to bring into blossom. They will remain in the display until the fuel-economy monitor is reset.

You can also select from four levels of information ranging from basic to very intricate. The second level, which includes a tachometer, seemed about right for us.

The navigation screen contains a lot of information as well. What we like is the split screen, which shows a map on the right and information from the Sirius satellite radio on the left. There’s no need to constantly switch back and forth to get radio information as in Lexus products.

We found the driver’s position excellent and the front seats comfortable. We drove the MKZ on some cold days and discovered that the heated front seats are indeed heated. It doesn’t take but a few minutes to really get a hot seat on the high setting. For long range comfort the single bar setting should be just right.

A short stint in the back seat left us with the impression that it would be a good place to spend hundreds of miles on a long trip. The trunk will not overwhelm you with its size, but its 11.8 cubic feet of storage area is very accommodating.

If safety is a concern as it is for many people, the Lincoln has all areas covered with antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, blind-spot mirrors, front-seat side airbags, side curtain airbags and rear-parking sensors. The backup camera in the optional navigation screen is extremely clear, one of the best we have encountered.

While the 35 grand base price includes a large array of standard features, the $3,595 “Rapid Spec 201A” option package adds about all the extras available including voice controlled navigation, backup camera with cross traffic alert, and an THX surround sound system. It was included on our test car bringing the bottom line to $38,775.

If you want to significantly cut you gas consumption without giving up the attributes of an entry-level luxury sedan, the MKZ hybrid is an obvious no-compromise choice.

Base price: $35,180; as driven, $38,775
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, electric motor
Horsepower: combined 191
Torque: 136 foot-pounds @ 2,250 rpm (gas engine)
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 107.4 inches
Length: 189.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,752 pounds
Turning circle: 37.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 11.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 36 mpg highway, 41mpg city
0-60: 8.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Lexus HS250h

The Good:
• Class-leading fuel economy
• Spacious, luxury-appointed cabin
• Same price as the gas-engine MKZ

The Bad:
• Brakes proved touchy

The Ugly
• Consumers generally don’t understand hybrids